Review: Vati

Vati

R. M. Meluch’s Vati is a short story originally printed in the Alternate Generals anthology and since republished as a standalone ebook. It’s an alternate history with the divergence being Werner Moelders surviving and getting the wunderwaffe into service. Of course, the war still does not end well for Germany, with the Allies turning to something that makes a very, very big boom.

Although written before The Big One, and with likely no cross-pollination, I can’t help but think of Vati as “TBO done right”. Less rivet-counting technical accuracy to be sure, but a far more concise and far more literary way of illustrating the same point-“give the Germans their wunderplanes and see what good it truly does them.” Even without comparisons, this is well worth a read.

Review: The Great Martian War: Invasion

The Great Martian War: Invasion

Scott Washburn’s The Great Martian War: Invasion is a fan-sequel to Wells’ classic War of the Worlds, with the Martians returning for more. There is one piece of bad news about this book and one piece of very good news. The bad news is that the execution never progresses beyond “decent”. This book is very Larry Bond-ish in its big scope, and that’s not always a good thing.

But thankfully, the good news makes up for it. Which is to say that the premise of “Theodore Roosevelt, tanks, and 75mm quick-fire guns against Martian tripods” is such a great one that it only needs a decent execution to be a solid, enjoyable novel. And that it is. The military balance is set up in such a great way, having neither the (deliberate) lopsidededness of either the original or Edison’s Conquest Of Mars.

How can you not recommend a book of this nature to any fan of alternate history or classic sci-fi?

Differing Fandoms, And What That Means For Alternate History

Seeing a post on the different “Eagle” and “Sparrow” fandoms made me think of this blog. After all, it started off trying to be small and selective to a small and selective group of literature. And then it ended up reviewing lots and lots of fiction in genres anything but those. Now, that post has its issues, but the general trends hold up.

Wargaming is an ideal “Eagle” fandom, small, selective, and often focused on exact details and quality. In contrast, cheap thrillers are a perfect “sparrow” fandom, where many are simply interchangeable and quite a few readers aren’t picky at all. Neither of these are bad things in the slightest. One can enjoy a deep simulator and a shallow mobile game just as much. But they are clearly different.

In conventional World War III fiction, it’s very easy to see the spectrum from “Eagles” (War That Never Was, wargames, especially advanced ones, etc…) to “Sparrows” (Ian Slater, other trend-hopping fiction). For all my criticism of Larry Bond, an underappreciated advantage of his books is an ability to balance between the extremes, making, or at least sincerely trying to make, something that’s technically adept enough for the “eagles” and relatable enough for the “sparrows”.

But where I’ve seen the biggest dichotomy is in alternate history. Like any other genre/type of fiction, it has its “eagles” and “sparrows”, and it’s made worse in my eyes from inherent divisions. IE, the same person is unlikely to consume Brad Smith’s World War 1985, Bridgerton, and Hotline Miami just because they’re all “alternate history”.

And internet alternate history, starting off as a pretty obvious “eagle”, has gradually changed. If I had to describe a lot of it, I’d use the term “a sparrow with the trappings of an eagle”, a sort of Mimikyu. There’s exposition, stock photos, and wikiboxes with exact details and little/no effort to make a broadly appealing narratives. Yet a lot of these events are contrived, ill-researched-and accepted.

The reason why I found New Deal Coalition Retained‘s conventional World War III so legitimately fascinating and not just bad was because it embodied this trend and (negatively) stood out so much from the Fuldapocalypses I knew so much about. Military alternate history (especially the American Civil War and World War II) has this reputation for being more “eagle-y” than a coordinated F-15 flyover of Lincoln Financial Field.

Here comes this war with absolutely no thought put into its logic beyond the absolute basic trappings of Clancy/Bond (which I think might have been copies of copies), a knockoff of World War II, and a desire for BIG CASUALTY NUMBERS. Yet it’s broad-scope told in a pseudo-Hackett way of pure exposition mixed with a handful of vignettes. While the most extreme example, it illustrates the strange evolution of internet alternate history through its blatant and noticeable issues.

The Big Baseball Business What-If

There’s an underappreciated what-if concerning the business of baseball that I’ve considered worth exploring. Too much sports alternate history simply shuffles players, teams, and outcomes around. It feels both obvious and unsatisfying to me, the equivalent of the Red Sox unloading not just Babe Ruth but the entire core of what would become the 1923 champions on the Yankees or the A’s “Mustache Gang” all leaving in free agency when they got the chance. This is something different and could have changed the entire business model to be more like what’s in our time a vastly different type of sports.

In the 1950s, the Dodgers were intrigued by a company called Skiatron, offering pay-TV services. The technology did exist at the time but was very rudimentary. The possiblities were obvious. After all, even at a dollar per game, a six figure audience could translate to that much every home game, a huge sum at the time.

In OTL, this did not come to pass in this form. Besides the obvious ferocious opposition from the existing broadcasting industry, Skiatron’s technology and finances just weren’t viable at the time. But if something like that could be done (and I don’t know the exact plausibility-I’m not that kind of technical expert), it would be, no pun intended, a game changer. The obvious is that there’d be a big jolt of money, getting the historical broadcast windfall in earlier.

There are easy ramifications. There’d be more money in the sport, which would increase the pressure by players to get more of the growing pie for themselves. A historically unsuccessful team that used this to its advantage would result in the championship races being different. But there’s also more thoughtful ones.

One on-the-field change I could see resulting from this could be in pitcher usage. Here I’m kind of extrapolating from the “overworked for the sake of attendance” policy of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych (which may have contributed to his severe injury). I’m also extrapolating from boxing and MMA, which historically have leaned the most on PPVs. Put simply, more people have been willing to pay to see Connor McGregor than to see Valentina Shevchenko. And I’d bet more people would be more willing to see Sandy Koufax than Ned Garver.

Another, sleazier one is the notion of small-market/poor team owners simply giving up and advertising the players on the opposing team for the PPV spectacle. “Hey, [Small City], do you want to see the Yankees? The Dodgers? The [other good team with an exciting player]?” There are possibilities here.

Review: The Iron Dream

The Iron Dream

Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream is an alternate history satire of the er, “issues” in lowbrow fiction. In it, Adolph Hitler doesn’t go into politics, instead becoming a pulp science fiction author. The book primarily consists of an in-universe novel involving the manly men of Heldon triumphing over hideous mutants and their masters, the mind-controlling Dominators. Does this remind you of anything?

This book is not subtle in the slightest concerning its message of the er “dubious” parts of adventure fiction. I could feel a tone of “Ok, here’s a very obvious reference? Do you get it? Ok, here’s another one. Get it? And to make absolutely sure that you get it, I’ll have an in-universe epilogue that explains everything”. My own reaction was “I get it! All right, I get it. Seriously- I GET IT.”

Thankfully, it’s quite understandable why Spinrad is so forceful. The stories of people not getting it despite his best efforts speak as to why. But it’s also dated in some ways. First, the type of exact “thud and blunder” prose/story he was parodying is now long obsolete. Second, it’s interesting to see a huge example of something coming not that long after its publication that was both prominent and different from the tone-Star Wars. Star Wars features a multispecies alliance of often-ugly aliens fighting a human-dominated empire. It may be a single example, but it’s the biggest example.

Beyond that, I can still understand and sympathize with the message. It’s one of the reasons why, while not a deal breaker, I tend to not like science fiction that has alien species’ introduced purely to be antagonists. However, I’ll admit it also feels a little like punching down at a very easy and very obvious target.

Nonetheless, this type of satire is very hard to write well. I know this firsthand. Of all the parodies of conventional WW3s I’ve tried to write, all of them I’ve junked as being too inaccurate and/or mean spirited. So Spinrad probably succeeded as best as he could, and the biggest satirical part does come across as him knowing his source material well.

Review: Breakout

Breakout

It’s kind of hard to take a look at individual entries in the Kirov series once its formula gets going, but if I had to choose one, I’d say Breakout. At the very least, it’s emblematic of the series. The Allies in this timeline have launched an amphibious invasion France from the south instead of from the north like they did historically. My fear when I first encountered the Kirov series was that it just would be stuff like that, or even more minor ones like “oh, well there were two Tiger battalions at ______ instead of the historical one?”

Instead, we get, in this book alone, timeshifted nuclear warheads, nuclear warheads developed with future technology by Volkov, airships, more airships, a timeshifted modern Bundeswehr brigade that inexplicably fights for the Axis because the author wanted to wargame it, and of course the adventures of the ship itself and its crew. There are reasons why, in spite of the pacing on display here, that I really enjoy this series. And Breakout has all of them.

Review: Pale Horse 3

Pale Horse 3

Russell Greer’s Pale Horse 3 is the story of a B-52 in a 1980s World War III-published in 2020. So it’s another entry in the “alternate history World War III after Vietnam” genre which, as I’ve said many times, thought was too big but ended up being too small. Except this is in an even smaller field because it has nuclear weapons involved. But wait, unlike the apocalyptic For Alert Force, this falls back into limited plotnukes.

That quibble as to what tinier chuck of a tiny segment of fiction it falls into aside, how is the actual book?

The answer, I’m sad to say, is “not the best”. Given that this is only the author’s second novel, I’m not holding it against him, but the prose is still very clunky, the plot is kind of jumbled and a little slow with the backstory, and even the action gets a little too Herman Melville-y. Dale Brown at his finest this is not.

Besides the review of the book itself, this has a very bittersweet “closing the frontier” feeling for me. It’s one thing to know the “AHWW3AV” (how’s that for an acronym?) genre inside and outside, but quite another to literally read the literal last one on the current list. One reason I actually like having backlogs of books is because of the empty feeling when they’re finished, even if in a satisfying way.

Once the magic of figuring out the genre is gone, you’re left with a field that, like any other, has good, bad, and in this case middling entries. Conventional (or mostly conventional) World War III felt like something to explore. Something to help me mature when I saw how little it actually resembled the “Icelandic” picture I had in mind before. Something to start a whole blog about. Now it’s just another tag in this blog, and I’m really not sure how I feel about that.

Review: Zulu Hour

Zulu Hour

The second Kirov “Keyholders” spinoff, Zulu Hour takes a look at an alternate Battle of Isandlwana. Like the previous installment at Waterloo, this has an excuse plot that’s really forced and blatant even by Kirov standards. A pair of gambling time travelers use their time-keys to go back and try to change various historical battles for the sake of their rivalry. Don’t worry about the seemingly massive butterflies this would cause, because thanks to the mechanics of time travel, they can always “overwrite” it later.

Yeah, it’s that blatant. But this is the Kirov series, and using time travel to set up all kinds of alternate battles is the exact point of the series. Besides the battle itself and the time travelers trying to persuade Chelmsford and Cetshwayo, this also involves the Fairchild Group, another weird subplot in the series involving an oil heiress and her own personal Type 45 Destroyer. In past Kirovs, several people from that were timeshifted to… the Isandlwana site.

Once the fighting actually starts, what emerges may be one of the most legitimately good things Schettler has written. Maybe it’s just how a one-part spinoff simply has to be more concise than an eight-book series, or maybe it’s just the novelty. Yet it worked.

It could be a change of pace after seeing so many large-scope modern wargames. Or it could be that the late 19th Century is an area of warfare that I haven’t seen that much of, compared to the subject matter of the main series. Whatever it was, the action here felt and looked better than the norm for Kirov.

This long-foreshadowed book was a lot of fun. And the Kirov spinoff concept of just reenacting/changing historical battles via wargaming has a lot of possibilities. Those are taken advantage of here in an enjoyable book.